CX Insights

The 4 UX Principles Microsoft Forgot That Doomed Windows 8

11 min read

This is a guest post by Ben Snyder

Microsoft has bet the future of Windows on a risky strategy of creating an operating system that works on both tablets and desktops. This seemingly smart strategy is doomed for a number of reasons, but mostly, they just forgot the basics.

They didn’t know their customer. They didn’t solve a problem. Their messaging is unclear and they ignored user research.

What I want to show you today is just how badly Microsoft missed the mark to use them as an example of what happens when UX principles and business fundamentals are ignored.

Microsoft’s Opportunity

You wouldn’t know it by looking at the laptops sitting on desks near you (which are all probably made by Apple) but Microsoft is still the dominant player in the world of operating systems. According to NetMarketShare, in December 2012, Microsoft had 91.74% of the OS market for desktops and laptops.


1 in 3 computer users today is still running on an operating system that was first released in 2001 (Source).

Astonishingly, Windows 7 only recently got around to being the most heavily used operating system in August 2012. Even in December, WinXP still had 39.08% of the total share of Windows installations. That means that better than 1 in 3 computer users today is still running on an operating system that was first released in 2001.

That’s 12 years people. TWELVE YEARS.


Even in December 2012, WinXP still had 39.08% of the total share of Windows installations (Source).

Off the top of your head, can you name another technology that you own that’s twelve years old? Your phone? Nope. Your physical computer? Nope. Your TV? Nope. Your DVD player? Probably not. Your toaster, fridge, oven, or car? All are likely less than 12 years old.

In the world of technology, Windows XP is practically a zombie. It should have been dead years ago but nothing has been able to slay it. Windows 7 has managed to eat into its user base but that’s only because Microsoft refuses to continue to sell Windows XP.

With less than a year-and-a-half before Microsoft ends all XP support, selling Windows 8 should be a breeze. After all, better than 1 in 3 people who own a desktop or laptop computer are running Windows XP and are badly in need of an upgrade.

If we ignore the tragedy that was Windows Vista and look at Windows 7, we see that it’s currently pushing 50% adoption in the Windows environment. Getting users to upgrade to Windows 8 should be a downhill battle.

Why Aren’t Users Upgrading?

In the same chart, we see that Windows 8 only has a 1.72% adoption rate. This may seem like a decent adoption rate for software that was officially launched on October 26, 2012 (even though versions were available as early as August 1st). Microsoft confirmed that more than 4 million people upgraded over the first weekend it was available but several news outlets have since reported on subsequent disappointing sales figures.

Paul Thurrott from Supersite For Windows, citing a source inside Microsoft, wrote in November that “Sales of Windows 8 PCs are well below Microsoft’s internal projections and have been described inside the company as disappointing”.

The culprit, according to Thurrott, is “lackluster PC maker designs and availability”.

With all due respect to Paul and his analysis, I’d like to offer a different reason Microsoft has had difficulty selling Windows 8.

The UX Mantra

We’ve recently been talking about the UX mantra over at A Better User Experience. It’s “product, market, message, reach”.

Simply put, in order to sell something, you need to know who you’re selling it to, how you intend to reach those people and which appeal works best to sell your product. If you are clear in each phase of the mantra, then you’ve given yourself a really good starting point from which to be successful.

It’s my opinion that both the Surface and Window 8 have had catastrophic issues with their product, their market, their message, and their reach.

Though, you have to give Microsoft credit for trying. After years of sucking Apple’s eggs, they decided to get off their bloated haunches to try something new.

When we look outside the desktop environment, Microsoft has been making solid gains for years. They had a lot of success with their Xbox division. Having finally rid itself of the notorious red-ring-of-death problem, it’s been buoyed by the release of the Kinect and the revamp of the Xbox Live system. The latest update to Xbox Live pushed Microsoft out of the gaming sphere and into the wider home entertainment market.

Their mobile phone division has likewise been greeted with success. They’ve done well carving out a niche for themselves with the Windows Phone. This writer at the NY Times spent an entire article “lusting” after a Windows Phone.

In non-desktop environments, Microsoft was clearly trending up.

It’s funny, the iPad may be getting all the glory in the tablet market now but Bill Gates was one of the first people to really push the idea of a tablet computer. And with Windows XP no less.


Bill Gates was one of the first people to really push the idea of a tablet computer (Image Source).

I imagine that it happened while Steve Ballmer was having one of those “What Would Bill Do” moments.

I don’t know exactly how the idea for the chimera that is Windows 8 came about but I imagine that it happened while Steve Ballmer was having one of those “What Would Bill Do” moments. He looked at the above picture, realized that OSes could TOTALLY be used with a tablet and decided to slap the Windows Phone UI on top of it. Then he did a touchdown dance (or whatever this is).

What they created was something truly original: a half desktop, half tablet experience which confounds most people who use it and which the majority of current desktop hardware can’t run completely.

Problem 1: The Market Doesn’t Exist

This is the first problem, and the one that Paul Thurrott latched onto: They don’t have a ready-made market for Windows 8.

In order to get the most from Windows 8, a user has to have a machine that could function both as a tablet and as a computer. And as of this writing, options are limited. PC makers are fast filling the gap, but so far the only totally Windows 8 machine I see being advertised regularly is Microsoft’s own Surface.

That being said, the Microsoft as an OEM is #4 in devices that use Windows 8.

Microsoft as an OEM is #4 in devices that use Windows 8 (Source).

The fact remains that the #1 problem to Windows 8 adoption is a lack of technology in the home and workplace that can fully take advantage of what Win8 has to offer. My speculation is that until Fortune 1000 companies AND the government switch over to the tablet/desktop hybrid, Windows 8 will continue to suffer low adoption rates.

And make no mistake, Windows 8 HAS suffered from low adoption rates. Believe it or not, Win8 has a lower adoption rate at this point in its lifecycle than Windows Vista and Windows Vista is what originally was to replace WinXP.


Windows 8 has a lower adoption rate at this point in its lifecycle than Windows Vista (Source).

Beyond the low adoption rate, Microsoft has suffered from a muddy message that offers no compelling reason to upgrade.

Problem 2: They Aren’t Solving A Problem

The defining feature of Windows 8 is its tablet/desktop crossover. Quite simply, this product doesn’t solve any user’s computing problems.

If anything, the slow adoption has shown the opposite to be the case: embracing Windows 8 requires new hardware and new know-how. For business and education where the user base isn’t comprised of kids and teenagers, and budgets are almost always tight, this is a tough sell.

Problem 3: The Message They Have Offers Little of Substance and Doesn’t Speak to Their User

Have you seen the Windows 8 / Surface ads? I don’t know that your average person could distinguish between the two. Let’s take a quick look.

The promotion of the product is really focused on the keyboard, and the users really don’t know how to maximize the touch experience. — Michael Birkin

This ad has been playing virtually non-stop for the past few months. In it students on a college campus jump, flip, slide, and otherwise create creative action while attaching and detaching the colorful covers (that also double as keyboards) from their Surface. When not messing with the cover, they are snapping the built in stand, or using their finger to slide icons across a screen.

When you sit down and analyze it, it seems to hit all the high notes of differentiation in a creative way. But in execution, all one can think is “that’s not for me”.

Let’s look at another.

I actually like this ad. It introduces the one feature I can clearly say that I know I’d like from Windows 8: the picture password. The video, if you can’t watch it, shows people unlocking their computer by swiping their finger across a picture in a pattern.

As much as I like this commercial, you know what I haven’t seen? How do you send an email? How does it work with all of my other existing software?

I’ve seen a kid “paint” on it but I haven’t seen a graphic designer use Photoshop.

In fact, the colors and the movement from the first ad combined with the family/non-business nature of the second ad make me think that Windows 8 isn’t for business. It’s for entertainment.

When your primary users are business and government, that’s a problem.

And it’s not just me who says that Microsoft blew it. Michael Birkin, head of marketing for Acer (one of Microsoft’s largets OEMs) was just quoted in the Business Insider saying, “The promotion of the product is really focused on the keyboard, and the users really don’t know how to maximize the touch experience.” He also added that the ads are “confusing”.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Problem 4: User Research Was Ignored

In the rush to create the new desktop/tablet hybrid, Microsoft either failed to do, or ignored, usability studies.

Hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density. Too bad. — Jakob Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen wrote an article titled, “Windows 8 – Disappoining Usability for Both Novice and Power Users” which he summarized thusly: “Hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density. Too bad.”

This video does a good job of showing the dual-nature of the software.

Scientific American has an article titled “Why Touch Screens Will Not Take Over” which makes the argument that touch screens will always be a niche device because of something called “gorilla arm”. Essentially, it’s way easier to move your finger a tiny bit on a mouse where your arm is mostly supported by a desk than to move your arms with wide gestures over the course of a day.

Microsoft is betting that we are all wrong. They’re betting – with their largest cash cow – that the world is ready for the desktop/tablet hybrid.

I remain skeptical.

Takeaways

Microsoft has proven inept thus far in almost all facets of launching and marketing Windows 8. It’s instructive to see where they got it wrong, so in reflecting our own projects we can attempt to see if we’re headed down the same road, or if we’re succeeding by avoiding the many mistakes that Microsoft has made.

Know your market: Microsoft created a product their current users don’t need.

Know your problem: Microsoft doesn’t understand why people won’t leave XP (short of through obsolescence) because they don’t understand why people love XP. If they did, they’d port what they love and excise the rest.

Know your message: Microsoft has created such a muddy message that even their own OEMs are complaining about it. It’s because Acer knows that Microsoft isn’t helping them move product. If you don’t know what your users want, it stands to reason that you can’t tell them that you have it. Instead, you’re just dancing and hoping nobody notices.

Don’t ignore existing Human Factors research: Good UX – navigation, findability, usability, discoverability, etc., can’t be thrown out the window because “users aren’t supposed to know what they want”. Users DO know what they want, and while they may not know the ultimate form it takes, they do know when their arms get tired or they get confused. And they don’t like it. When research says one thing and you do another, you do so at your own peril.

Editor’s note: So here is what Ben thinks about the future of Windows 8. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Ben, or would you like to add something? Let us know in the comments below!

Ben Snyder
Ben Snyder is the founder and owner of Little Wing Marketing, a UX agency that's passionate about making websites work better. He's also the Editor-In-Chief of the UX blog A Better User Experience (BUX), a learning resources for all things UX and user testing. Follow Ben on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Listen to the BUX podcast with Paul Veugen, the founder of Usabilla, or another BUX podcast with the Managing Director Marc Van Agteren.